10 Notable 16th Century Prose Books

The 16th century saw a surge of prose fiction in England, with writers such as Edmund Spenser, Thomas Lodge and Sir Philip Sidney producing works that continue to be enjoyed today.

It was unusual for 16th century women to read and write but the century had a large number of female writers. Women’s writing during this period was often influenced by the domestic sphere, and their works often explored themes of love, loss, and family. However, some wrote about a wider range of subjects, including politics and religion.

The 16th century was a time of great change and upheaval in England, and this is reflected in the prose fiction of the period. Writers used their work to explore the social, political, and religious issues of the day.

Their works continue to be read and enjoyed today, and they offer valuable insights into the lives and thoughts of people in the 16th century.

Here are ten of the most notable 16th century prose books:

Utopia by Thomas More (1516)

Thomas More’s seminal work of social and political satire, Utopia, envisions an ideal society on a fictional island, contrasting it with the corruption and injustice of contemporary Europe. Through the eyes of the traveler Raphael Hythloday, More presents a society based on reason, equality, and communal ownership, where crime, poverty, and war are nonexistent. Utopia’s utopian ideals, while often impractical, serve as a powerful critique of the social ills of the time and continue to inspire and challenge readers today. More’s witty and thought-provoking prose seamlessly blends philosophical discourse with fictional narrative, making Utopia a timeless classic of political and social commentary.

The Schoolmaster by Roger Ascham 1570

The Schoolmaster  published posthumously in 1570, is a groundbreaking work of educational philosophy that outlines a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning. Ascham, a renowned scholar and tutor to some of England’s most prominent figures, including Queen Elizabeth I, drew upon his extensive experience to craft a treatise that remains relevant and influential today.

At the heart of Ascham’s philosophy lies the belief that the primary goal of education is to develop well-rounded individuals who are not only intellectually adept but also morally upright. He emphasizes the importance of cultivating a love of learning, fostering critical thinking skills, and instilling a sense of civic responsibility. Ascham’s methods are grounded in the principles of humanism, advocating for a curriculum that emphasizes the study of classical languages, literature, and history.

The Schoolmaster’s enduring legacy lies in its comprehensive and humane approach to education. Ascham’s emphasis on developing well-rounded individuals who are both intellectually and morally equipped to contribute to society remains as relevant today as it was in the 16th century. His work continues to inspire educators and serve as a valuable resource for anyone interested in the art of teaching and learning.

The Adventures of Master E.J. by George Gascoigne, 1573

Gascoigne’s The Adventures of Master E.J., first published in 1573, is a picaresque novella that follows the escapades of a young man named E.J. as he traverses the globe, encountering a myriad of adventures along the way. The novella’s episodic plot and focus on E.J.’s experiences rather than a linear narrative are hallmarks of the picaresque genre. Gascoigne’s witty and satirical prose, as well as his exploration of themes like love, loss, and friendship, further enhance the novella’s appeal.

Pandosto: The Triumph of Time by Robert Greene, 1588

Robert Greene’s Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, first published in 1588, is a prose romance that tells the tragic tale of King Pandosto of Bohemia, his wife Bellaria, and their daughter Fawnia. The novel is divided into two parts, the first of which explores the couple’s descent into despair due to a series of misunderstandings and misfortunes, while the second part follows Fawnia’s adventures as she is raised by a shepherd.

Pandosto is notable for its exploration of themes such as love, loss, jealousy, and redemption. The novel is also noteworthy for its influence on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is based on the second part of Pandosto.

Menaphon by Robert Greene, 1589

Robert Greene’s Menaphon  is a prose romance that explores themes of love, friendship, and betrayal. The novel is set in the Arcadian world of Menaphon, where a group of shepherds and shepherdesses engage in a series of debates and competitions about the nature of love.

Menaphon is notable for its use of Euphuistic language, a style of writing characterized by its ornate vocabulary, complex syntax, and use of similes and metaphors. The novel is also noteworthy for its influence on subsequent English literature, and it remains a popular work of Renaissance fiction.

Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, 1590

Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, first published in 1590, is a lengthy prose pastoral romance that combines elements of chivalry, Greek romance, and Renaissance humanism. Set in the idyllic realm of Arcadia, the novel follows the intertwined destinies of two pairs of lovers: the princess Philoclea and her suitor Pyrocles, disguised as the Amazon Zelmane; and her sister Pamela and her suitor Musidorus, disguised as the shepherd Dorus.

Arcadia is notable for its complex plot, its exploration of ethical and political themes, and its rich poetic language. The novel has been praised for its influence on subsequent English literature, and it remains a popular work of Renaissance fiction.

Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie by Thomas Lodge, 1590

Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie is a pastoral romance that tells the story of Rosalynde, a beautiful and virtuous young woman who is forced to flee her home and disguise herself as a shepherdess after her father is banished by the usurper Torismond. In the Forest of Arden, Rosalynde falls in love with Rosader, a young nobleman who is also in disguise. The novel follows the couple’s misadventures and eventual triumph as they navigate the challenges of love and exile.

Rosalynde is considered a classic of English literature, and it is notable for its influence on William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The novel is also praised for its humour, its exploration of themes such as love, loss, and friendship, and its idyllic depiction of the Forest of Arden.

The Tragedy of Antonie by Mary Sidney 1592

The Tragedy of Antonie is a captivating historical drama that chronicles the final days of Antony and Cleopatra, two of antiquity’s most renowned lovers. Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, was not only a renowned patron of the arts but also a gifted writer, and her translation of Robert Garnier’s French play into English stands as a testament to her literary prowess.

The Tragedy of Antonie unfolds against the backdrop of a tumultuous Roman Empire, where political ambition and personal rivalries intertwine with the passions of love and loss. Antony, once a powerful general and loyal friend to Octavius Caesar, finds himself consumed by his love for the captivating Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Their relationship, though passionate and intense, is fraught with challenges and ultimately leads to their tragic downfall.

The Tragedy of Antonie is not merely a retelling of historical events; it is a profound exploration of the human condition. Sidney delves into the depths of love, loss, ambition, and betrayal, revealing the universal struggles that shape our lives. The play’s themes remain relevant today, offering insights into the complexities of human relationships and the challenges of navigating a world driven by power and politics.

Mildmay’s autobiography offers a unique insight into the life of a 16th-century woman. She writes about her childhood, her education, her marriage, and her children. She also discusses her religious beliefs and her medical practice. It is a valuable resource for historians and literary scholars. It is a fascinating and moving account of a remarkable woman’s life.

The Unfortunate Traveller: or, The Life of Jack Wilton by Thomas Nashe (1594)

Thomas Nashe’s picaresque novel, The Unfortunate Traveller: or, The Life of Jack Wilton, follows the adventures of Jack Wilton, a cunning and resourceful page who navigates the turbulent world of 16th-century Europe. Set amidst historical events, the episodic narrative takes Jack from the battlefields of France to the intellectual circles of Italy, where he encounters a cast of colorful characters and engages in escapades ranging from swindles and disguises to romantic entanglements and deadly encounters. Nashe’s witty and satirical prose captures the spirit of the age, blending humor, social commentary, and historical insight into a captivating tale of adventure and self-discovery.


Thomas of Reading, or The Six Worthy Yeomen of the West by Thomas Deloney (1600)

Thomas Deloney’s popular prose narrative, Thomas of Reading, or The Six Worthy Yeomen of the West, paints a vibrant portrait of 16th-century England, following the intertwined lives of six clothiers who rise from humble beginnings to prominence through their honesty, hard work, and entrepreneurial spirit. Amidst a backdrop of social and economic change, the story highlights the virtues of thrift, integrity, and mutual support, showcasing the cloth trade as a driving force of social mobility and economic prosperity. Deloney’s engaging storytelling and vivid descriptions of everyday life in Elizabethan England have cemented Thomas of Reading’s place as a beloved classic of English literature.


And that’s our list of the ten most notable 16th century prose books. What’s your take on these – any surprises, or any books not on this list that you feel should make the cut?

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